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L'Exil et le Royaume
Book of Exodus

A page from the Sarajevo Haggadah

Geraldine Brooks is my E.F. Hutton. When she writes, I listen. At least when she writes non-fiction. She’s the author of Nine Parts of Desire, which apparently made it onto George W. Bush’s supposed reading list. She was the Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s and early 90s. More recently, she was the winner (in 2006) of a Pulitzer for March, a novel written from the perspective of the absent father in Alcott’s Little Women. In the December 3 issue of the New Yorker, she writes “The Book of Exodus,” an incredible piece of reporting on the crisscrossing lives of two families, one Jewish, one Muslim, from Sarajevo to Tel Aviv: who says Muslims and Jews weren't made to be each other's salvation?

Too bad the piece isn’t posted online. It goes like this.

In 1941, Dervis Korkut was the Muslim librarian of the Bosnian National Museum in Sarajevo. He was from a prominent family of Muslim, liberal intellectuals, had written in defense of Jews, and had studied theology in Istanbul and the Sorbonne. Nazis were “cleansing” Jews and Serbs from the city through the aid of Ante Pavelic, the local fascist boss. In 1942, Nazis in the city were cleansing bookshelves, too. They came looking for the library’s most notable Jewish treasures, among them the Sarajevo Haggadah, a “little parchment codex, rich in gold and silver leaf, lavishly illuminated with precious pigments made from lapis lazuli, azurite and malachite.” It was created in Spain, Brooks continues, “perhaps as early as the mid-fourteenth century, during the period known as the convivencia, when Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities lived in the sol y sombra—sun and shadow—of a shared existence. The illustrations resemble those of Christian Psalters, but some of the decorations call to mind an Islamic style of ornamentation. Quite apart from the opulence and artistry of the illustrations, the fact that they exist at all is extraordinary. Until the codex came to light, in 1894, art historians widely believed that figurative painting had been entirely suppressed among medieval Jews because of the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or likeness of anything’—a proscription echoed in many Islamic, and some Christian, societies.”

But there it was, in Sarajevo, and there were the Nazis, looking for it and other treasures, some to destroy, some to preserve, for perverse reasons: “There were rumors at the time,” Brooks writes, “of Hitler’s nascent plan for a ‘museum of an extinct race.’ Synagogues and community buildings in Josefov, the Jewish quarter of Prague, had been spared destruction so that, when all of Europe’s Jews had been obliterated, it could become a caricature ‘Jew Town’ for Aryan tourists to visit, populated by Czech actors in Hasidic garb.” [Reading this, suddenly, I have odd visions of Disney displays and renditions about other cultures, and of Walt Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism.] “The museum’s exhibit would eventually fill fifty warehouses. The best of Europe’s Judaica was being amassed as part of the general plunder under the authority of Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Rosenberg’s collection was intended to facilitate a new branch of scholarship: Judenforschung ohne Juden (Jewish studies without Jews).”

So there he was, Nazi Commander Johann Fortner, at the Bosnian National Museum, requisitioning, among other things, the Sarajevo Haggadah. And there was Dervis Korkut with the book, hidden under his coat. When Fortner confronted Korkut over the book, Korkut simply said another Nazi officer had already been by to take possession of it. “What officer?” Fortner barked. “Name the man!” “Sir,” Korkut replied, “I did not think it was my place to require a name.” The book was saved.

But the book was only the first of Korkut’s great works. “In our family, the Haggadah is a detail,” Korkut’s son Munib told Geraldine Brooks. “What my father did for Jewish people—that is the biggest thing that we, in our family, have to be proud of.” In April 1942, he also rescued a young Jewish girl, Mira Papo, who’d been a member of the Young Guardians, a socialist Zionist youth movement. She’d joined Tito’s Resistance movement until Tito decided to do a little cleansing in his ranks, too, throwing out Jews. Mira found herself stripped of her only means of staying alive for a cause. Most of her fellow partisans were found out and murdered. She made it back to Sarajevo. Korkut took her in (he was married) and passed her off as a Muslim servant for several months until he placed her in the home of an aunt married to a Catholic on the Dalmatian coast, “where there were no Germans. She stayed there until the end of the war.”

After the war, back in Sarajevo, a woman fell at Mira’s feet. It was Korkut’s wife. Korkut was in prison, facing trial and execution for collaboarting with Nazis. Of course the charge was false. But Tito was using the post-war atmosphere of retribution to get rid of his political opponents, too, of any potential dissenter. Korkut was a known liberal, therefore a known dissenter. He’d never bowed to Communist excesses any more than he’d bowed to fascist ones. (He wouldn’t have fared very well as a blogger either at Daily Kos or at Michelle Malkin’s site.) Korkut’s wife pleaded with Mira to testify at her husband’s trial to exonerate him. “But Mira did not show up for the trial. Her fiancé feared that the wrath of the Party would be turned upon her, perhaps even lethally, if Mira, as a member of the military [as she was by then] appeared as a witness in what was clearly a politically motivated trial.”

Mira later assumed that Korkut was tried and shot. He was tried. But he served a prison term and was actually released. Mira discovered, reading a newspaper article in 1994, that he had died in 1969. Brooks writes: “The teen-ager Korkut had rescued in 1941 was now seventy-two years old. She decided to give the testimony she had failed to deliver at Korkut’s trial. On a winter day in 1994, Mira sat down to write a three-page, single-spaced letter to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and study center. […] By describing what really happened, Mira hoped, she hoped to make amends: ‘Perhaps this modest material will help to clarify his identity as a great friend of the Jews of Bosnia long before World War II. I remain as a solitary witness that Dervis [Korkut] was indeed so, even in a time when we had few true friends.’ Mira died in 1998, just a year too soon to see how completely her belated testimony would accomplish the restitution she desired.”

When Mira was writing that account, Dervis Korkut’s wife, Servet, was in Paris, living with her son. She got a call from an Israeli diplomat. She and Dervis had been named Righteous Among Nations. “Their names would be inscribed in the gardens of Yad Vashem, not far from the trees planted in memory of famous rescuers of Jews, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.” She was unable to travel to Israel; she was recovering from a heart attack. But a ceremony was held for her at the Israeli embassy in Paris. She was granted the right to Israeli citizenship, and awarded a monthly stipend. She spoke to Mira by phone. Mira explained to her why she’d failed to appear at her husband’s trial. Servet reassured her: it would have made no difference even if she had appeared. Tito had his mind made up about every trial’s outcome.

Meanwhile, Dervis Korkut’s son Munib had a daughter, Lamija, living in Kosovo when the Serbs’ cleansing of that province began in 1998. Lamija was able to evacuate her children, but not herself. She and her husband ended up in a foul Serbian camp with thousands of other refugees. They managed to escape thanks to a Macedonian border guard who took pity on them. In her pocket, Lamija had a photocopy of Mira’s testimony, authenticating her link to the family. It was like a passport. She was flown to Tel Aviv immediately. Brooks writes:

“They arrived in the terminal at Ben-Gurion Airport, blinking in the strong Mediterranean sunlight and the flash of reporters’ cameras. The story of how Dervis, a Muslim, had saved Mira and Mira, a Jew, had saved Dervis’s child proved irresistible to the Israeli media, and to its politicians. […] Then, in the midst of all the chaos, someone addressed her in Serbo-Croatian. ‘It was a good feeling to have someone speaking your language,’ she said. But she had no idea who it could be, greeting her so warmly. Pushing through the crowd was a slender, wiry man she had never seen before, with a shock of dark hair and a mustache. Opening his arms, he introduced himself, and Lamija fell into the embrace of Davor Bakovic, the son of Mira Papo.”

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